South Africa v New Zealand, Tri-Nations, July 25
All Blacks wary of battle-hardened Boks
July 22, 2009
All Blacks skipper Ricihie McCaw takes things easy during a pool session earlier this week © Getty Images
New Zealand are primed for a step up in class ahead of their Tri-Nations clash with South Africa in Bloemfontein on Saturday.
South African coach Peter De Villiers kept surprises to a minimum in naming a side that boasts a whopping 617 test caps, including 344 in a pack made more powerful by the return from suspension of lock Bakkies Botha.
Just two new faces have been injected to the side that clinched the series against the British & Irish Lions in Pretoria last month with flanker Heinrich Brussouw replacing the suspended Schalk Burger and centre Jaque Fourie stepping in for the injured Adrian Jacobs.
All Blacks assistant coach Wayne Smith said the Springboks had enjoyed a perfect lead-in to the Tri-Nations and posed a steeper challenge than the Wallabies who were beaten 22-16 in Auckland last weekend.
"The Boks are coming out of a winning Lions series, they're big physically, they've got an aggressive mindset so this is going to be another step up again," said Smith.
The Springboks side features nine survivors from last year's debilitating 19-0 loss to the All Blacks at Cape Town but Smith will be most interested in the selection of Ruan Pienaar at fly-half ahead of the more conservative Morne Steyn.
"Perhaps that selection will tell us what sort of game they're going to play," Smith said before the team announcement.
Pienaar is a more erratic goalkicker but a superior distributor to Steyn and capable of parting defensive lines. The other area of focus is the Springboks midfield, where Jacobs' groin injury sees the old firm of Fourie and Jean de Villiers reunited. They had two seasons together from 2005 but have been separated since de Villiers suffered an injury early in the World Cup.
The pair provide a mix of class and physicality similar to the Ma'a Nonu-Conrad Smith axis for the All Blacks. Nonu was indignant when one journalist said he and De Villiers, who will play for Munster after the Tri-Nations, were the world's premier No 12s.
"I wouldn't say I'm the world's finest. I think he is at the moment," Nonu said. "They've got a strong backline that like to rush, I'm sure the South Africans won't want anyone breaking their line."
The All Blacks had a day off today, with their side to be revealed tomorrow following what will be the first tough training run of the week.
Meanwhile, it appears New Zealand isn't the only country struggling to pull crowds to test matches. Less than half of the 48,000 seats at Vodacom Park have been sold and the Orange Free State rugby union has consequently reduced ticket prices by 50 percent to 300 rand ($NZ60).
"We'd prefer to play in front of a full stadium, that's always lekker (good)," Peter De Villiers said. "But we can't see a rugby Test in isolation from what is happening economically in the country, and people can't afford certain things any more."
Last month's Lions tour was marred by small crowds, not helped by the South African union's steep ticket prices.